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How to help kids conquer back-to-school fears 

How to help kids conquer back-to-school fears

For some parents, the end of the summer feels like, as a certain school supplies commercial suggests, "the most wonderful time of year," when schedules and routine replaces the occasional sloppy chaos of summer days. 

For some kids, it triggers an escalation of anxiety and fear. 

"Going back to school often results in butterflies and excitement for kids," says Robbin Williams, a WellSpan Philhaven therapist who works with children and adolescents. "For some, it brings a heavier load of worries, fear, or separation anxiety." 

The good news is that there are strategies to help prepare and support a child for this time of year. 

Here's how to help kids navigate nervous feelings during those first days and weeks of school. 

Set the routine 

A week or two before school begins, start living as if it has. That means observing more regular bedtime, wakeup, and meal schedules. Routines can offer comfort because they allow kids to anticipate what comes next, giving them a feeling of control. 

Start taking specific steps that point to the school year. Make a grocery list with lunch items for packers, adding some treat items for that first week. Get new school supplies gathered and ready to go in backpacks. Consider getting a new outfit or sneakers and save them for that first day. Plan a favorite breakfast for that morning. 

"Take steps that let your children know it is time to get ready for the school year and that it is something to look forward to and celebrate with some fun extras in that first week," Williams says. 

Listen and reassure 

Acknowledge your child's fears. 

Be aware that kindergartners, new middle schoolers, ninth graders, and transfer students might experience anxious feelings more strongly, as they are entering a "transition year," a school year when they will be in a brand-new place with unknown challenges. 

Validate any feelings, and end with reassurance and a positive note or a reminder of past successes. Model how you manage the unknown. 

"Don't sweep away feelings with a blanket 'Everything will be OK,' " Williams says. "Let your child know you understand how they are feeling and are there to support them." 

Try phrases like: 

  • "I know you like being at home but I also know you can do this." 
  • "It can feel overwhelming to try new things but when I get nervous, I stop and take a few deep breaths and it helps me calm down." 
  • "It's OK to feel a little unsure about going to a new school but remember how you felt at your first swimming lesson? And now you are a strong swimmer. Once you learned how to do it, you were great." 


Ask your child what specific worries he or she has. Is it the drop-off at school or the bus ride? The cafeteria? Making new friends? Bullies? Tackling all that new homework? 

"Empower them by finding a way to specifically address those worries," Williams says. 

For a child who is unhappy about leaving home, consider a walk-through of the first morning of school. Wake up at the prescribed time, eat breakfast, pack whatever bags are needed, and drive to school, so they can anticipate what will happen and practice what to do. 

For a child who fears getting lost, take advantage of any tours or open houses at a new school, or ask if you can visit to see the hallways and classrooms, so they feel prepared and know what their new surroundings look like. 

For a child who worries about bullies, try role playing, with the child playing the role of the "mean kid" while you offer ideas on how to respond appropriately or ask for help.  

For a child who dreads the return of homework, help set up a study schedule and support it, perhaps reading or doing something quiet nearby while your child does homework. 

For a child who is worried about standing alone in the cafeteria, scanning for a friendly face, suggest making plans to meet a friend before their lunch period; sit with someone from a shared sports, music, or other activity; or sit with someone from one of their new classes. Remind them that many of their fellow classmates are the same boat and may welcome someone reaching out to them as well. 

Get help  

Anxious feelings usually fade away within a few weeks, after a child settles into the routine of the school year. 

Be aware if strong feelings persist. A younger child may show this by crying frequently, erupting in temper tantrums, or acting very clingy. Older children may have anxiety symptoms such as stomach aches, or seem particularly moody, irritable, or withdrawn from normal activities in and out of school.  

If your child is struggling, consider reaching out for help from a licensed therapist, who can ease this transition and support your family.